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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

I'm done with Cyberpunk 2077, and it has nothing to do with the bugs


Article by Matt S. 

I'm not going to play Cyberpunk 2077 any more. I'm about 50-60 hours in, so I've seen enough to know that this game is never going to be for me. If by some miracle it all gets better in the latter half, then I'm at the point where I'm still comfortable with missing that, because any game that takes 50-60 hours to become interesting is still not an example of good design. I don't want to push on to finish the game to review it, either, because the moment I give it a score I'm going to be dragged into the most toxic discourse I've seen with video games this year. It's a week out to Christmas. I'm tired and just don't want to deal with that. So this will be the last thing I write about this game before deleting it off my PlayStation 5 hard drive.  

The thing is, though, that while the game's pervasive bugs are the most common problem cited with Cyberpunk 2077, that wasn't the case with me. I've actually somehow avoided crashes and game-breaking bugs. The worst thing that I've experienced is an enemy in a lift that would flicker in and out of existence, but I needed to defeat him for the game to progress. He wasn't responding to bullet spray, but I solved that by ambling my protagonist into the lift and melee attacking him. That's the worst bug I've experienced in 50 hours. 

So Cyberpunk 2077 didn't lose me over the bugs and technical issues. I even think it looks fine on PlayStation 5 (though I know others have an issue with the aesthetics on consoles). My issue with Cyberpunk 2077 is that it is woefully inadequate as a work of cyberpunk. That's it. It's as simple as that. I waited for 50+ hours for the game to start delivering something that's printed right there in the title, and it doesn't. To me, that's a failure.

Cyberpunk is a genre of transgression, and that alone should have raised red flags the moment one of the largest corporations in video games decided to give it a go. Big corporations can't go too hard on transgression because transgression limits the size of audiences, and corporations need to sell broadly. Nonetheless, cyberpunk without transgression is bad cyberpunk. As described in a very useful book-length essay by Simon Ayling, An Intellectual History of Cyberpunk Criticism, cyberpunk is a literature of "crisis" - moral, ethical, and social - and as science fiction, it acts as a warning for what may well go wrong across all three in the future. "Set in a future of incredible technological advances," Ayling writes, "juxtaposed with equally massive social degeneration, cyberpunk fiction, particularly that of [William] Gibson, significantly questions the assumed link between technological and social progress."

Decades ago at the genesis of the genre, this line of questioning was quite simple, and that was in no small part because back in the 80's the "future" was being imagined in movies as computers running DOS, and ethical questions were similarly limited by what we understood the future might look like. Will robots turn self-aware and kill us? Is AI dangerous? Those were important questions, to be sure, but fast forward to 2020, and the moral and ethical questions that are now being posed to us by cyberpunk are much more nuanced, complex, and based on things that are actually happening now. That was the what Cyberpunk 2077 needed to engage with. 

So, for just a handful of examples of where it misfired, to zig to a place of superficiality when it should have zagged to a nuanced thesis:

Just recently a story emerged regarding an AI "girlfriend" that seems to be seducing half of the male population of China. In the context of that story, the complex, nuanced role of JOI in the brilliant modern cyberpunk masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 takes on a new kind of urgent poignancy. In writing about the ethics of human relationships with holograms and AI, and whether Blade Runner 2049 positions these beings as deserving personhood and thus the kind of moral protections that we afford to real humans (and potentially self-aware robots), writer Stephen Mulhall in Blade Runner 2049: A Philosophical Exploration notes "She is, after all, a hologram - a computer-generated, three-dimensional simulation of a flesh-and-blood woman, whose underlying adaptive algorithms allow her to tailor her own behaviour to that of whoever purchased her, thereby enhancing her value as a consumer product in a world where human and replicant populations suffer from radical loneliness and sexual isolation.

This is a complex, relevant discussion because humans are interacting in increasingly complex ways with digital beings and how we do so, what we limit ourselves to, and the role these beings are allowed to play in our society will mean a lot for how we shape it into the future. There is no such complexity or subtext to the way Cyberpunk 2077 handles holograms, or how people interact with them. Most of the time, they're window dressing, often in various states of undress. Eye-candy elements that you pass by on your way to the next mission, or something to watch while you're being told where to go next as you follow the narrative's breadcrumb chain. When you do interact with holograms on any level it's always part of some superficial push to establish Cyberpunk as "futuristic."
 
Then there's the in-game advertising. It's everywhere in Cyberpunk, and it is garish, pervasive, and in-your-face. You can imagine that CD Projekt Red's teams put it all in there as a way of showing the kind of aggressive late-stage capitalism that everyone knows is the aesthetic norm for the cyberpunk genre. Putting aside the massively questionable way that this art depicts gender (which other writers, far more capable of addressing LGBTQI+ subjects than I am, have already covered in depth), it's also quite clear that there is no greater point to it being there than because CD Projekt Red thinks they need to have it so their game looked right. Artist, Keiichi Matsuda, did a far better job of deconstructing this media-and-capitalism-drenched future that we're snowballing towards with his six-minute-long short film, Hyper-Reality, because in that film we see the impact that that kind of extreme media engagement has on people. In Cyberpunk 2077, it's there because it's aesthetic window-dressing. It's there because it's there. There's no point that is actually being made with it, beyond CD Projekt Red just assuming that people will understand it's a bad thing because they're making a game where capitalism is bad. 

The broad narrative of Cyberpunk 2077 and the stuff that your protagonist gets up to doesn't really have much to say either, when you boil it down. As I've mentioned on social media and the like as I've been playing along, over and over again I am more inclined to "read" this game as cyberpunk by way of Ayn Rand than the criticism of capitalism, predatory individualism and the excesses of authority that the genre is meant to prioritise. You can help friendly police officers out. At one point you can state that your goal in life is to filthy rich without the slightest hint of irony. You form on-and-off alliances with the power-brokers within corporations, and use people from all walks as stepping stones to achieve your goals. At just about every turn Cyberpunk 2077 finds its moral core in a kind of "benevolent libertarianism" - the idea being that you're still out for yourself and will tread over whoever it takes to get ahead... but you can make friends and care about people when it suits, too.

And then there's the relationship between humanity and technology. Superficially the game recognises that there are some real issues with allowing humanity to become too reliant on technology; one of the first major plot hooks is that you've inserted a chip into your head and the memories and personality of a "terrorist" (anti-corporate freedom fighter) start to wipe over your own, threatening your own consciousness with oblivion. Then you'll discover that this "soul-killing" technology is much more pervasive than your single experience. All of this is presented as a self-evidently bad thing, and yet, within a scene or two of that Johnny suddenly becomes a helpful voice in your head to bounce ideas off, and then, before you know it, he's a valuable ally, and while you're certainly working to prevent this "digital toxin" from destroying you, you come to peace with the technology really quickly. Beyond that, in just about every other way that technology is present in Cyberpunk 2077, it's presented as a useful utility, even if it's not perfect and goes wrong sometimes. 

Even the corporate angle - with corporations being the big evil in the world - is presented more as being a problem because evil people like to use corporations to get ahead, rather than the corporations themselves being a systemic blight on society as almost every work of cyberpunk posits. There's the occasional knowing wink that the CD Projekt Red people understand the latter theme to some extent. I particularly liked the bit where they satirised a company for having "just" an 80-hour workweek as though it were a good place to work... which takes on an expanded meaning when you realise that it comes from a company notorious for crunch in the real world. Sadly, even if it is a self-aware bit of reflection, CD Projekt Red will no doubt continue to crunch into the future, making the quality of the messaging and the value of the self-reflection rather suspect. Other then when it's used for humour, however, the game never questions the need to have corporations. It just suggests that some corporations are irredeemable and when that happens it's really just a problem with the people at the top.

Having said all of that I now want to to get back to the transgression them. As I wrote previously, real, genuine cyberpunk will forever be limited as a commercial product because it's just too challenging and uncomfortable for a lot of people. Blade Runner 2049 was real, genuine cyberpunk, and a critical darling specifically for that reason. It was considered a bomb at the box office. Cyberpunk (the genre) is aggressive, anarchistic, dark and claustrophobic, and there is absolutely nothing in Cyberpunk (the game) that has been designed to engage any of these tonal themes to transgress, or deal with transgression as a topic. Yes, you can select your character's penis size (or give them a vagina) in the character select screen. How "edgy" for a game developer to do that, right? Well, there's very little you can actually do with your character's genitalia, to the point that it has no purpose in the game whatsoever. Case-in-point; if you try to go fully nude in-game it still sticks underwear on your character's bottom half. Furthermore, even when you run around town topless (as I did) absolutely no one responds to the fact that there's a girl wearing nothing but a g-string flashing her boobs to the entire city. The nudity in Cyberpunk 2077 is pure window dressing and aesthetics rather than anything thematically meaningful, and it's a similar story with all the controversial elements in the game. The fact it can give epileptic players seizures was acknowledged as a mistake (and rightfully so, that's not the kind of transgression artists should be playing around with), rather than some kind of theme that the game was dealing with. The trans and marketing stuff was, again, aesthetic window dressing and nothing more. It's all just there, and ultimately the lack of a point has become exhausting to me with this game.

Push past all of that and Cyberpunk is an entertaining shooter. I actually really enjoyed the level design in particular, and the whole experience reminded me of Mass Effect 3 in the way it combined heavy action with light RPG strategising and turned each combat room into an interesting puzzle. It's also a big open-world game and, rare for the genre, there's a verticality to it, since the buildings are built tall. There's surprisingly little traffic and people around for such a Kowloon-like space, but the architecture is visually impressive.

I didn't come to Cyberpunk 2077 looking for a mildly entertaining shooter, however. I wanted cyberpunk and all its transgressive glory. I wanted to be challenged morally and intellectually because, over time, the cyberpunk genre has morphed to become one of the more inquisitive and meaningful science fiction outlets out there. I got none of that from Cyberpunk 2077, and I have better things to do with my time than continue playing a mildly entertaining shooter.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


I'm done with Cyberpunk 2077, and it has nothing to do with the bugs
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